Tag Archives: The New York Times

Publishers, Weakly

What the Penguin/Random House Merger Really Means by Michael Levin

When I saw the word “synergies” applied to the proposed merger of publishing giants Penguin and Random House, I laughed out loud.   “Synergies” is Wall Street-speak for “Let’s merge two failing companies, fire half the employees, run the resulting business more cheaply, suck out all the money we can as quickly as we can, and then leave the wounded, gasping beast that is the resulting company to die a miserable, public death.”

Which is exactly why “synergies” best describes the merger of two of the biggest names in the publishing industry, which is wringing its hands over the immediate consequences of this deal, which really represents one more death rattle of the once thriving book publishing trade.

Here’s what happens now:  lots of editorial, marketing, and other jobs will vanish.   Agents will have fewer places to sell books.   Fewer books will be published.   Authors will get even less money (if that’s possible, since some publishers are paying zero advances whenever they can get away with it).   And the pontificators will pontificate on what it all means to society (not much, since most of society has already given up on reading books).

Here’s what happens next:  the remaining major publishers will find it harder to compete, because the resulting publisher (Penguin House?) will be able to produce books more cheaply.   So they’ll fire people, merge, fire more people, and eventually roll over and die.

All because publishers never figured out how to deal with the Internet and how to sell books in a wired world.   All because publishers considered themselves “special” and thought they could get away with selling products they didn’t market.   All because publishers are English majors wearing Daddy’s work clothes and pretending to be business people, running their businesses on whim and gut feeling instead of figuring out what people want and giving it to them, the way smart businesses work.

I have no pity for the fallen publishers.   In Wall Street terms, there isn’t enough lipstick in the world to make these pigs kissable.   They had the responsibility to shape society by providing it with books worth reading, to create a cultural legacy for our generation and generations to come.   And instead, what did they give us?

Ann Coulter, Navy SEALs, and Fifty Shades of Gray.

The publishers will blame everyone in sight for their predicament, but this is a self-inflicted wound; what the Brits would call an “own goal.”

You can’t run a successful business passively waiting for people (in this case, literary agents) to tell you what you should produce.   You can’t run a successful business by throwing 10,000 strands of spaghetti (or 10,000 books a year, in Random House’s case) against the wall of public opinion and seeing what sticks.   You can’t run a successful business selling information in the form of printed books by putting them on trucks to distant cities, hoping that booksellers (anyone who can fog a mirror, run a cash register and repeat the phrase, “We don’t have it but we could order it for you.”) will actively sell your stuff to people.

Bottom line:  You can’t run a successful business when you are essentially competing with yourself.   If Barnes & Noble doesn’t sell a Simon & Schuster book within three weeks, it sends the book back to Simon & Schuster, at Simon & Schuster’s expense, only to have that same space on the shelf filled with…  wait for it…  a different Simon & Schuster book.   That’s not marketing.   That’s masochism.

A New York editor who worked at Penguin once told me that his boss called all the employees into a meeting and said, “If there’s any merger talk, you’ll hear about it from me and not from The New York Times.”   A few days later, he was reading The New York Times on the subway on the way to work, and read that Penguin was merging with another publisher.   Here we go again.

If it weren’t for Fifty Shades of Gray, Random House (and Barnes & Noble, for that matter) would have been on life support.   There would have been nothing left to merge.   Penguin’s owner, Pearson LLC, is the smartest guy in the room, dumping off Penguin’s trade publishing on Bertelsmann, a German conglomerate which somehow still thinks it can make money selling books.   And now a few thousand more publishing employees are going to leave the world of books and hit the bricks.

So let the hand wringing begin.   The collapse of a once proud industry has taken a giant step backward.   And there ain’t no synergies in that.

Michael Levin is a New York Times bestselling author and Shark Tank survivor.   He runs the Business Ghost website, and is a nationally acknowledged expert on the future of book publishing.

Note:  This opinion piece represents the views of its author.   It does not represent the opinions or views of Joseph’s Reviews, and is presented in the spirit of fostering public discussion on key, important issues.

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Gin and Juice

The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee (Free Press, $27.00, 339 pages)

This is the biography of Craig Claiborne, a food writer and premier restaurant reviewer for the New York Times, who was to attack the bland, boring, heavy American diet of the 1960s and substitute, in its place, “a refined, if painstaking, cuisine.”   The food championed by Claiborne was international, primarily French, but with the understanding that each and every culture in the American melting pot offers outstanding dishes.   It may be that Claiborne’s prime mission was to de-anglicize the starchy, meat and potatoes diet that was once the province of the American cafeteria; a diet that – ironically – has returned to rule the roost via fast food outlets (with all the related health problems attached to such a non-diverse menu).

Claiborne might have said that variety  is the spice of diet, and he was nothing if not courageous in popularizing Chilean, Mexican, Greek, Turkish, Indian and other foods during his career.   Thomas McNamee earlier wrote the highly acclaimed bio of California’s Alice Waters,  Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, and while he praises Claiborne, this account is much less laudatory.   It seems that Claiborne had a number of issues as a human being, and they’re all put on the table in this telling.   (Unfortunately, the account is harmed by some odd typos and errors.   For example, on page 97 of the finished book, the year 1961 is referred to as “Ninety-sixty-one”.)

Claiborne grew up rather poor, but he came to identify with what we would now call the “one percenters.”   He was always to fly first class on his frequent trips to Europe, even when he had very little money to his name.   Later, the Times would take care of his expense accounts but Claiborne became controversial for his outlandish spending habits.   In 1978, he wrote a front page story about a $4,000 dinner he arranged in Paris.   The paper received 1,000 letters of complaint – there was a recession on after all.   At least two-thirds of the letters were very negative about Claiborne’s “in your face” ostentatiousness.   As McNamee notes, three years later interviewers were still asking Claiborne – the once poor boy from Sunflower, Missouri – to justify his behavior.

While Claiborne’s mother ran a bed-and-breakfast and taught him much about food preparation, he was to literally disown her and refused to attend the funerals of his mother and his brother.   Claiborne was in the closet during his lifetime, and he attached himself to two different married men, neither of whom went on to leave his spouse.   And while Claiborne lived to the age of 79, his days included no exercise and no less than 14 alcoholic drinks per day.   Claiborne was to openly admit to People magazine that he drank six margaritas before dinner, six glasses of wine during dinner, and as many stingers “as he needed…” until he got the “click in (his) head that makes me feel peaceful.”   In 1979, his blood pressure rate was found to be 186/112 – compared to an upper normal rate of 140/80 for a man in his late 50s.

You might wonder how Claiborne, as a public figure, got away with all of this…?   Well, he had his tricks.   After suffering a brain hemorrhage, he was to enlist his physician in his drinking activities.   Yes, his own doctor, who had ordered Claiborne to significantly reduce his alcohol intake, was charmed enough by the then-celebrity to sit and drink with him in restaurants.   Sometimes the doctor even included his wife in these drinking parties.

McNamee is just as honest – despite the book’s title – about Claiborne’s role in changing American eating habits.   Although Claiborne wrote the national bestseller, The New York Times Cook Book, McNamee admits that, “it is impossible to say whether the book had caught the wave of an entirely new American enthusiasm for food and cooking or had set it in motion.”   But the man is given full credit, as is his due, for popularizing the foods of all cultures and changing the once-dull face of food in The Big Apple:

“The clear result of his critical rigor was a continuous increase in the quality of New York’s restaurants and in others across the country…  By the time Craig left the Times, New York was teeming with restaurants as varied as the city’s clans, cults, allegiances, and heritages.   From the Bronx to the Battery were Chinese restaurants galore – including the fiery (regional dishes) that Craig had done so much to popularize.   Virtually every corner of Italy was represented.   Japanese cuisine of high refinement was easily had.   There were Brazilian, Vietnamese, Cuban-Chinese, Swiss, Swedish, and Syrian restaurants.   No longer were Greek, Indian and Mexican food served only in cheap joints.

Craig Claiborne may have been a man flawed in his personal habits, but he was also a visionary who proved the truth of the words that in diversity there is strength.   This is an engaging read for foodies and non-foodies alike.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee.

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You’re Getting To Be a Habit With Me

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Random House, $28.00, 400 pages)

Charles Duhigg is a highly educated (Harvard and Yale) business reporter (The New York Times), who is the epitome of the thorough investigative reporter.   In past weeks, Duhigg and his publicist have been circulating a flurry of teaser articles and Twitter posts that include excerpts from his just-released book.   The teasers are eye-catching because most folks in the USA shop at Target, buy household air fresheners (unless they are featured on A&E’s Hoarders) and like to think that the choices they make are acts of free will.   He has also been travelling on an aggressive cross-country tour of major media outlets.

As to whether folks really have the ability to make their own choices, not really, according to Duhigg.   His book supports a hypothesis that most, if not all, daily activities are the result of a habit loop consisting of a cue, routine and reward.   This behavior loop is applicable at the personal as well as organizational and societal levels.   Granted, the author has met and exceeded the burden of proof imposed by such a strong theme; however, too much of a good thing is not always the most pleasing event.

This reviewer was immediately interested in the book after reading an excerpt that focused on Target stores and the extensive shopper profiling that takes place thanks to a sophisticated computer program that slices and dices purchasing data.   A quick glance at my to-be-read shelf revealed an advance reader’s edition (ARE) of this very book.   A few chapters into the book, a familiar feeling arose.   It was similar to the one you get after watching a movie that had fabulous trailers/coming attractions but left little for the actual theater experience.   That’s how this reviewer felt – a bit let down, after reading The Power of Habit.   All the catchy and engaging information was in the teaser articles.   Absent these elements, the book became a traditional survey (overview) of the force of habit.

The sonorous, heavy tone of the text may have been lightened with the final editing process.   It’s doubtful that the notes and sources section was reduced.   It occupies nearly 20% of the book!   Hopefully, the charming diagrams made it to the release version.

Recommended for readers who are extremely curious about the force of habit.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Power of Habit was released on February 28, 2012.   The original title on the ARE was The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It. 

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Gift Yourself

Thanks to Tyrus Books of New York City, we have a gift for all e-book readers.   Between now and Christmas Eve, you can use your Kindle, Nook or personal computer (or tablet) to download a free copy of Hurt Machine: A Moe Prager Mystery by Reed Farrel Coleman.   Publishers Weekly has already listed Hurt Machine as one of the the best novels of 2011, and The New York Times is publishing a major review of this gritty Private Investigator mystery on Christmas Day. But you don’t have to wait to get your copy – nor do you have to pay for it.   Just go now to Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other e-book selling sites, enter the title Hurt Machine and enjoy your free download.   Merry Christmas!

Joseph Arellano

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When Johnny Comes Marching Home

A Lonely Death: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery by Charles Todd (William Morrow; $24.99; 352 pages)

Thirteen is not an unlucky number for author Charles Todd (actually the mother/son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd).   A Lonely Death is, of course, the thirteenth mystery in the Inspector Ian Rutledge series.   Although the series has been in publication since 1998, this is a first read for this reviewer.   A classic blend of personal feelings, intellect and mayhem makes the tale set in the English countryside more than a mystery story.   The period piece in a charming setting enhances the believability of the tale and slows the pace of the story line.   The Todds’ grammar is excellent and their wording is confident without being ostentatious.   There is no doubt of the authors’ intent as they lead the reader along a winding path of discovery.

The story is set in post-World War I England.   The characters’ lives and, in some cases, their bodies have been injured during the Great War.   These men and women base their actions on their underlying motives and class beliefs.   In other words, they are congruent.   Due to the time period, the detecting is more about good old sussing out of details than gimmickry or technological tricks.   Three soldiers are found dead, one after another – similarly posed with a dog tag in the mouth and death by garroting.

This isn’t a page turner – per se; rather, it is an assignment upon which the reader is invited to share with Inspector Rutledge as he traverses England’s countryside.   Solving the crimes takes a backseat to the interactions and power plays among the law enforcement teams investigating the crimes.   Some things never change and the Todds make the point that people are sure to bully and intimidate when control and power are at stake.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   A Lonely Death will be released by William Morrow as a trade paperback book ($14.99) on December 20, 2011.   “Masterly.”   The New York Times

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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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Giving Away the Books

Thanks to Doubleday Publishing, we have three (3) copies to give away of a memoir that was released just a week ago today, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg.   This hardcover release with a Deckle Edge has a value of $26.00 and runs 416 pages.   Here is the official synopsis:

 “Avi Steinberg is stumped.   While his friends and classmates advance in the world, he remains stuck at a crossroads, unable to meet the lofty expectations of his Harvard education and Orthodox Jewish upbringing.   And his romantic existence as a freelance obituary writer just isn’t cutting it.   Seeking direction – and dental insurance – Steinberg takes a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison.   Over time, Steinberg is drawn into the accidental community of outcasts that has formed among his bookshelves – a drama he recounts with heartbreak and humor.   But when the struggles of the prison library – between life and death, love and loyalty – become personal, Steinberg is forced to take sides.   Running the Books is a trenchant exploration of prison culture and an entertaining tale of one young man’s earnest attempt to find his place in the world while trying not to get fired in the process.”

Here are some early comments on this book:

“Acidly funny…  Steinberg proves to be a keen observer, and a morally serious one.   His memoir is wriggling and alive – as involving, and as layered, as a good coming-of-age novel.”   Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Hysterical, ingenious, illuminating.   I wish I had left yeshiva for prison right away.”   Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of Super Sad True Love Story.

Running the Books presents [Steinberg’s] experiences working in the prison’s library as a fiendishly intricate moral puzzle, sad and scary, yes, but also – and often – very funny.”   Salon.com

If you would like to try to win one of the three available copies of this unique – and clearly funny – memoir, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and e-mail address to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   To submit a second entry, tell us briefly about the most unusual or strange job you’ve ever had.   Did you like it or hate it?   Did you learn anything from it?

This is it for the complex contest rules.   To be eligible for this giveaway, you must live in the continental U.S. and have a residential mailing address.   Books cannot be shipped to P. O. boxes or business-related addresses.  As always, the winners will be drawn at random by our experienced contest administrator, Munchy the cat.   (Munchy reserves the right to change this contest’s rules and/or dates at any time.   That’s because he’s the boss.)  

You have until midnight PST on Saturday, November 20, 2010 to get your entry or entries in.   Good luck and good reading!

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American Tune

Independence Day

Independence Day: A Novel by Richard Ford (Vintage, $16.00, 464 pages)

“A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to on the horizon.”

“I’m the man who counsels abandonment of those precious things you remember but can no longer make hopeful use of.”

The genre of the suburban angst novel was likely created by John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit Run.   That was the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a superb athlete and high school basketball star who finds that his life has peaked at the age of 26.   Angstrom’s solution was basically to run away from the obligations of adulthood and family.

Updike has certainly received a great deal of praise as one of the best American writers; although to me each of the three books in the Rabbit trilogy came off as flat and tired.   Updike’s genius may lie in the fact that this was precisely what he intended.

Richard Ford

Move ahead to the year 1995 and second-time author Richard Ford (The Sportswriter) moves the category along by leaps and bounds with the release of Independence Day.   Come the new year, this novel will be 20 years old but it reads as if it was written just last month.   Frank Bascombe, a divorced former newspaper sportswriter, is living in his ex-wife’s house attempting to get by as a realtor.   This at a time when there’s a significant (early 90’s) recession, rapidly falling real estate values and high unemployment levels.   Employment down, building down, rents low, cost to buy high:   “… dug in for the long night that becomes winter.”   Sound familiar?

Bascombe has decided that the best times in his life have – like his former spouse – left him behind.   “Why should you only get what you want?   Life’s never like that.”   So Bascombe simply resolves to get through, to keep living, during his self-titled Existence Period.

At first the reader – not knowing any better – accepts Frank Bascombe as a depressed 53-year-old man who thinks things like, “When you’re young, your opponent is the future. When you’re not young, your opponent’s the past and everything done in it…”.   But eventually we realize that Frank’s actually an optimist – “It’s my experience that when you don’t think you’re making progress that you’re probably making plenty.”

As we read this 451-page novel, we see that Bascombe is making progress in pushing the re-start button on his life.   He’s not a bad person, really, it’s just that he has his own way of looking at things – one of the small points on which his ex-wife and his troublesome girlfriend can agree on.   Like a writer, he looks at things and sees something different from real actual life.   “You might never have been quite as happy as you like to believe you were.”

Bascombe is often let down, unfortunately, by the other people in his life, like one of his post-divorce female partners:   “… she had very little facility for actually thinking about me and never in the time we knew each other asked me five questions about my children or my life before I met her.”   Yet we somehow sense that Frank will be blessed with the victory of what Bob Dylan called “simple survival.”

How good, exactly, is this piece of American literature?   In 1995, The New York Times included it in the year-end list of best books.   As 1996 began, Ford was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Independence Day.   This Frank Bascombe novel (like John Updike’s Rabbit books) was part of a trilogy, but don’t worry about what came before or after.

Independence Day was Ford’s singular masterpiece, his van Gogh, his Sunflowers painting.   Or The Starry Night.

This is essential reading.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Independence Day 3

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